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practical details about very strong solar events?


Cyrus Valkonen

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First I want to emphasize that I am aware of the fact that catastrophic solar events are very unlikely, maybe less likely than being nuked with an atomic bomb. Regardless there are people who may want to choose to prepare for such a scenario, by building bunkers or taking other actions. And it makes sense that there are those people in the world, while most people shouldn't have to take the threat very seriously.

I have only scratched the topic briefly, and it is easy to understand that the power grid and electronics might be affected to whatever degree by a solar event. However it seemed rather difficult to get to the details of how this will initially play out.

As I understand it, there are two distinct sources of destructive power:

1. currents introduced in power lines, essentially acting as antenna for geomagnetic storms
2. direct ionizing radiation from the sun

Now as I loosely understand it, solar flares on their own have compared to CMEs on their own very low potential to cause geomagnetic storms. Solar flares and CMEs often happen together but sometimes also happen by themselves. But to which degree is this the case for X10+ flares? And how is the power of CMEs without solar flares classified and identified?

As I understand it, particles from CMEs have more potential to cause geomagnetic storms. But geomagnetic storms can be caused by ionizing radiation as well. And CMEs without solar flares can also cause different types of ionizing radiation. Which one of the mentioned combinations and sources is less likely or more likely to yield more destructive potential to which extend?

Also there is the question what kind of structures, other than power lines, can act as antenna to introduce destructive currents. For example solar panels have a very large surface area. I couldn't find out by myself if they can damage even if disconnected. Does the wiring inside a house for example act as a large enough antenna to induce harmful currents, even if disconnected from mains power, for example via breaker box?

If just a geomagnetic storm were to occur without any ionizing radiation, wouldn't electronic devices be safe if they were simply disconnected?

What types of ionizing radiation from which sources have the most potential to damage electronic devices? I have often read for example that solar flare shielding needs to be much much thicker than for example HEMP shielding (which can be achieved with just a few layers of tin foil). But this seems a contradiction to me, at least on earth. Tin foil on the one hand is also effective against electron bombardment, so high voltages can't form inside semiconductors. However x-rays don't even introduce meaningful voltages, and the potential of gamma rays to do the same exists, but is still quite small in relation to the direct structural damage they cause. Apparently we wouldn't ever be dealing with any sort of radiation from a solar event that is harmful to life. Thus from my understanding of radiation, it seems like gamma rays will not destroy the electronics much either at this kind of radiation level, and thin HEMP shielding would in fact work quite well. Some people claim though that modern electronics are a million times more sensitive to radiation than electronics of the 60s. But I believe this is an extreme exaggeration, and only somewhat true if it concerns operational errors in high-end RAM and CPUs, not long-term damage to components. Transistor size has only been shrinking roughly 10x since 2003 in CPUs, and many of the more trivial ICs in use much less than that or not at all.

There is also the question of how low the odds are for radiation to cause damage, in relation to severity of an accompanying geomagnetic storm. Wouldn't the destructive potential from the storm be several fold higher than from radiation?

Concerning radiation, lastly there is also the question of what constitutes effective shielding. A Faraday cage makes sense for electron bombardment, beause they can bounce all over the place and still yield high voltages. Though if it comes to x-rays and gamma rays, I would picture this rather the same way as a beam of light that can penetrate a bit deeper into the material. But this beam is ultimately still blocked by thick-enough concrete walls and other objects that are in between the target and the source of the beam. Thus simply having one or several very thick stone walls or a metal plates block the path of radiation would *in my mind* do the job for the most part. Maybe someone with more expertise can paint those details out better than I can?

Lastly there is the question of prediction and warning systems. In the news I have heard that prediction of solar flares is in theory possible 30 minutes in advance, with only plans to realize this somewhen and somewhere. While ionizing radiation of course will reach the earth instantaneously at the point of observance, so at this point any destruction will just happen instantly. However it would seem to me that the real danger comes from geomagnetic storms, which would only be triggered some 8 hours after, with some CMEs even taking several days to reach earth. This also begs the question if very powerful CMEs will also tend to be much faster, possibly breaking existing speed records.

It would be very useful to have an RSS feed, like from the government provided only for emergency alerts, that warns about extreme solar events possibly of concern to the general public. Since obviously a lot can be done within 8-48 hours time, by government and individuals alike, to protect equipment like computers or solar installations from a storm. Unfortunately I know of no such thing. The RSS feeds I know of don't seem to work with delays that have emergency preparedness in mind. Checking the spaceweatherlive.com website is of course very useful, but one cannot be expected to do this every day twice for just some very remote chance.

I thank you in advance for any advice you will give and answering my questions.

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You got some things mixed up about Space Weather 😉 let's begin with the basics:

Solar flares can occur from sunspot regions on the solar disk, with some of those flares there can be an accompanied CME associated with it. Long duration solar flares have bright CME's associated, whereas short duration flares often don't have an associated CME. The speed of the CME will depend on the characteristics of the flare, long duration X-class flares can have a very high speed. The effect of the CME impact on Earth depends a bit on the solar wind speed at arrival but also how the interplanetary magnetic field interacts, if the IMF turns northward there isn't even a storm. Even a long duration filament eruption which in X-rays is low (for example C1) can also produce a bright CME, although slower travel speed these can also cause strong storms.
When solar flares occur, we know this almost immediately. If there is an associated CME accompanied we know that after a few hours, when imagery of LASCO gets available. Usual travel times can defer depending on the liftoff speed from 3 days to 24hours or in extreme cases faster.

In 2003, a time where we already had computers and even astronauts in space we had the Halloween storms where the Earth had a direct hit of an X17 long duration solar flare with a tremendous fast speed (travel time of 19 hours) that caused a severe geomagnetic storm (Kp9) (strongest in recent history). Because of all precautions of past events (like the Quebec incident) the negative effects of space weather were minimal, all systems kept working on the ISS as well (which is a lot more exposed to harmful space weather, including astronauts). And this will also be the case for the next big storm. 

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  • Vancanneyt Sander changed the title to practical details about very strong solar events?

There are definitely a lot of uncertainties, I agree. But this is also something that shouldn't be too worried about.

Looking over my own thread about a similar topic, I admit I was also overreacting (not helped by how this sort of thing is getting further and further hyped as we head towards solar max), but these guys study the sun and are well-versed in what they're talking about, unlike some actual paid professionals or other so-called experts. To address some of these concerns:

1. "In the news I have heard that prediction of solar flares is in theory possible 30 minutes in advance, with only plans to realize this somewhen and somewhere."

Indeed, they're saying that, I think they're starting to implement it in spurts, but it'll take a while for it to be fully fleshed out. As for the bit with the Geomagnetic storms, they're a lot harder to actually predict regarding their ETA between initial ejection and arrival to Earth (assuming it even hits). I know I'm missing something here, so someone more knowledgeable than I can fill those gaps in or correct me on this.

2. "If just a geomagnetic storm were to occur without any ionizing radiation, wouldn't electronic devices be safe if they were simply disconnected?"

Devices can be replaced (albeit at great cost), It'd be the more important things like power grids people would be more concerned about at a more immediate level, so far, as noted above, we've have X-Class storms hit us with little issue to power grids or electronics. So it's not an immediate concern, even if it can be a bit of a worrisome prospect.

3. "It would be very useful to have an RSS feed, like from the government provided only for emergency alerts, that warns about extreme solar events possibly of concern to the general public."

See the above point, unfortunately it not being an immediate concern, this has lead to governments being complacent with where we're at for emergency feeds, coupled with them focusing more on asteroid deflection than actually strengthening the power grids so they can actually survive a natural disaster like a hurricane, much less a solar flare.

 

Again, this is just what I know about the situation, so my details might (and probably are, to a degree) be wrong.

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Thank you for your insights.

It is good to know that we already had some extreme solar events in 2023 and 1989, which didn't do a lot of catastrophic damage and raised some awareness about the dangers. This might or might not have prompted power companies to design infrastructure somewhat more resilient to future events.

However it is misleading to believe, that this removes the concern and proves certain safety for the future. For one it is the nature of electrical systems to operate within certain tolerances, with irreparable damage occurring in an exponential manner if thresholds are exceeded. In practical terms, if you were to plug one hundred 12V devices not into a 12V but into a 16V outlet, only one or two devices will damage. However at 32V, >90% of the devices will damage irreparably. Similarly -in absence of any more detailed expert analysis of the particular electric systems in question- we have to default in our assumptions to anticipate that nearly all infrastructure might be affected, opposed to little to no infrastructure, if we just double or triple the power of the event.

This is also why I raised so many questions about the plausibility of direct damage from ionizing radiation, which is often cited as danger from solar flares, but which I personally don't feel to be such an extreme risk, compared to the accompanying electromagnetic induction. I have also read some opinions, that a geomagnetic storm would basically only short out the power grid transformers, mainly those with design deficits, while basically leaving everything else in tact. If this is really so, or if this is just a thought that only holds true in layman terms, I am not really sure about. As mentioned, the potential for ionizing radiation to disrupt computer operations is many magnitudes higher, due to extreme sensitivity of modern RAM technology,  than for it to damage the components irreparably. In a modern computer, normal cosmic radiation already introduces errors in memory on an almost daily basis, which is why servers use error-correcting RAM. So I think it is safe to assume that a very strong solar flare will (only?) crash many computers if their location faces the sun at the time.

Secondly modern hardening against solar events is not required by law, which means that any security is based on blind faith in power companies. Companies however don't operate within the laws of good will, trust or humanity, but according to pure economic interest within the laws of capitalism. During the energy shortages from the Ukraine war for example, very legitimate concerns were raised by some experts that the EU power grid (which supplies highly urbanized and industrialized countries) could fail in such an unusual way that large parts of a country would be left without power for not only hours but days and weeks. This was possible, albeit rather unlikely, because power companies were already using tricks on paper to exhaust the reserve capacity far beyond allowed limits, and there are huge deficiencies in the power grid to secure it against such unusual unexpected events. The same could still be true if a solar storm took only some minor portion of power plants offline. As power companies are either monopolies or oligopolies, it is fair to say that securing against such very unlikely "acts of god" is not in the interest of power companies, if there are any sort of significant cost involved. Thus hardening against solar events does probably only go so far, as that future infrastructure designs were changed, only if this could be done at virtually no additional cost, or if it concerned more probable events that are in fact extremely likely to happen in a timespan of a few years and decades, such as X10-30 flares.

Lastly as I understand it, the solar event itself is also subject to many unknowns and variations. CMEs can hit in rapid succession at different strengths of the earth's magnetic field at the time, which can potentially change their destructive power immensely. It is also important where and how they hit and how the earth was oriented at the time. Also I find it quite nebulous to understand all the consequences of how wildly the kind of matter ejected and radiation produced can vary between each event.

1 hour ago, Orilander said:

3. "It would be very useful to have an RSS feed, like from the government provided only for emergency alerts, that warns about extreme solar events possibly of concern to the general public."

See the above point, unfortunately it not being an immediate concern, this has lead to governments being complacent with where we're at for emergency feeds, coupled with them focusing more on asteroid deflection than actually strengthening the power grids so they can actually survive a natural disaster like a hurricane, much less a solar flare.

I actually just found out that you can enable notifications on the Spaceweatherlive app, specifically for very extreme solar events. RSS of course is preferable and has more advantages. But this is also really useful, it is a really great app and I also love the Spaceweatherlive site.

I hope we can discuss some more of the details mentioned.

 

Edited by Cyrus Valkonen
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18 hours ago, Cyrus Valkonen said:

Solar flares and CMEs often happen together but sometimes also happen by themselves. But to which degree is this the case for X10+ flares? And how is the power of CMEs without solar flares classified and identified?

Solar flares by themselves cannot cause geomagnetic activity at all, because it's just light. And the amount of additional energy in the X-ray spectrum (and beyond, as the most extreme events will also have some gamma ray activity) is very small compared to the total power output of sunlight, it is all absorbed by the atmosphere and doesn't reach the ground at all.

Strong CMEs that occur without any significant flaring are possible, but it's definitely not common when it comes to the strongest events. Generally you classify CMEs in terms of the direction they are headed and the resulting geomagnetic activity they lead to here on Earth, regardless of flaring (for example, filament eruptions tend to not be accompanied by as much flaring, likely due to the fact that they occur higher up in the corona).

18 hours ago, Cyrus Valkonen said:

But geomagnetic storms can be caused by ionizing radiation as well.

That is incorrect. Ionizing radiation does not cause geomagnetic storms. Any source of radiation powerful enough to literally ionize enough of the ground and ground-level atmosphere to cause this would pretty much instantly obliterate everything on the surface.

In the context of space weather, only charged particles from Solar wind and CMEs cause geomagnetic storms, not radiation.

18 hours ago, Cyrus Valkonen said:

And CMEs without solar flares can also cause different types of ionizing radiation.

Sounds like you're very confused. A CME refers to a mass of charged particles launched from the corona, and definitely does not cause ionizing radiation. Typically strong launches can be identified by various radio emissions, but as you hopefully know, the radio part of the spectrum is on the other side of the ionizing radiation part.

18 hours ago, Cyrus Valkonen said:

Which one of the mentioned combinations and sources is less likely or more likely to yield more destructive potential to which extend?

The only events we know of to have any potential of being disruptive to human life in a significant manner are the very strongest, typically classified as superstorms; as far as I'm aware, such powerful CMEs are always accompanied by strong flares (if anyone knows of any such superstorms that weren't, let me know), so you'll pretty much always know in advance if there's any such potential. Keep in mind that such events are extremely rare, and that the disruptions they cause generally aren't particularly severe; in 1972 some sea mines were triggered, in 1989 part of the Canadian power grid went offline for a few hours, in 2003 part of the Swedish power grid went out for a few hours, and generally a bunch of satellites get destroyed and some damage is done to transformers in affected areas, but that's about it; and power grid engineers have become better and better at accounting for such events and the geomagnetically induced currents (GICs) that come with them.

18 hours ago, Cyrus Valkonen said:

Also there is the question what kind of structures, other than power lines, can act as antenna to introduce destructive currents. For example solar panels have a very large surface area. I couldn't find out by myself if they can damage even if disconnected. Does the wiring inside a house for example act as a large enough antenna to induce harmful currents, even if disconnected from mains power, for example via breaker box?

Surface area isn't really relevant in this respect, and Solar panels work by converting radiation to electricity, they don't act as receptacles for charged particles.

Also, GICs generate large-scale electric fields that will only affect long conductive wires, so the wiring inside your house will be safe, there's at least no evidence I know of to the contrary from any of the previous events. If anything, in the most extreme case it's more likely that your local transformer will go belly-up and that you'll simply be left without power, but even that is not very likely.

18 hours ago, Cyrus Valkonen said:

If just a geomagnetic storm were to occur without any ionizing radiation, wouldn't electronic devices be safe if they were simply disconnected?

What types of ionizing radiation from which sources have the most potential to damage electronic devices?

As I mentioned above, you seem to be very confused about what is causing geomagnetic activity and what ionizing radiation is. Ionizing radiation means radiation in the part of the spectrum that has enough energy per photon to knock electrons completely out of their atomic orbitals, thus leaving them ionized (with net charge); that would be extreme UV, X-rays, and gamma rays. No such radiation from regular sunlight or flares ever reaches the surface, because they ionize air high up in the atmosphere, and are responsible for the existence of ionosphere among other things.

18 hours ago, Cyrus Valkonen said:

I have often read for example that solar flare shielding needs to be much much thicker than for example HEMP shielding (which can be achieved with just a few layers of tin foil).

Shielding isn't going to do much of anything in the case of geomagnetic activity (I'll address that, because Solar flares, as mentioned above, do not affect you at all, at least not in that way), because geomagnetically induced currents occur due to large-scale electric fields being generated; also, as I also mentioned already, it's not going to affect you locally anyway.

18 hours ago, Cyrus Valkonen said:

There is also the question of how low the odds are for radiation to cause damage, in relation to severity of an accompanying geomagnetic storm. Wouldn't the destructive potential from the storm be several fold higher than from radiation?

Not just several-fold, but many orders of magnitude higher; radiation is not what causes damage, geomagnetic activity is what has potential to cause damage (but even that is exceedingly rare, and even when it happens typically not very significant compared to most other natural disasters we see constantly occurring, flooding, droughts, and even volcanic eruptions, all cause vastly more damage and disruption to human activity than Solar activity ever will).

18 hours ago, Cyrus Valkonen said:

Concerning radiation, lastly there is also the question of what constitutes effective shielding.

The atmosphere constitutes effective shielding. No ionizing radiation from sunlight gets through the atmosphere to the surface. And as for particle radiation, the charged particles virtually never reach the surface; in the most extreme events there is what's called ground level enhancement (GLE), which is in fact very small doses of radiation at ground level due to charged particles that get through the atmosphere, but even in those extreme events this dose is negligibly small, not even considered enough to raise your lifetime risk of cancer.

18 hours ago, Cyrus Valkonen said:

Lastly there is the question of prediction and warning systems. In the news I have heard that prediction of solar flares is in theory possible 30 minutes in advance, with only plans to realize this somewhen and somewhere.

I strongly doubt it. I have not seen any such successful warning system for Solar flares. You can look at active regions with a ton of complexity and like they're about to pop, but saying conclusively that they will flare in any amount of time is not possible to my knowledge.

18 hours ago, Cyrus Valkonen said:

While ionizing radiation of course will reach the earth instantaneously at the point of observance, so at this point any destruction will just happen instantly.

Once again, just for emphasis, the electromagnetic radiation from Solar flares does not cause any destruction at all. All that radiation is absorbed by the atmosphere, it's only the potential CMEs that come afterwards that might have any sort of impact on human activity.

18 hours ago, Cyrus Valkonen said:

However it would seem to me that the real danger comes from geomagnetic storms, which would only be triggered some 8 hours after, with some CMEs even taking several days to reach earth. This also begs the question if very powerful CMEs will also tend to be much faster, possibly breaking existing speed records.

8 hours would be the fastest CME ever recorded, we know of no CME that reached Earth that fast. The fastest we know of is the one from 1972, clocking in at an estimated ~14.6 hours, which is considered to have been even faster than the Carrington event. And you are correct that the "real danger" comes from geomagnetic activity and not from the flaring, but this "real danger" is not particularly dangerous at all, at least not from experience or what we know; it might temporarily disrupt some human activity on a minor scale as mentioned examples of above, but that's about it.

18 hours ago, Cyrus Valkonen said:

It would be very useful to have an RSS feed, like from the government provided only for emergency alerts, that warns about extreme solar events possibly of concern to the general public.

SWL (this site) provides an app that will give you notifications about all sorts of things, including the significant Solar flares that always precede the strongest CMEs that have any chance at all of having any impact.

All in all my recommendation to you would be to try to stick more to the basics and learn the fundamental principles of how space weather works, because you seem to harbor a lot of common misconceptions that stem from not getting those basics quite right. Some basic physics would also be helpful.

Edited by Philalethes
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1 minute ago, Philalethes said:

 The only events we know of to have any potential of being disruptive to human life in a significant manner are the very strongest, typically classified as superstorms; as far as I'm aware, such powerful CMEs are always accompanied by strong flares (if anyone knows of any such superstorms that weren't, let me know), so you'll pretty much always know in advance if there's any such potential. 

The only thing i know, is that in 1992 a filament eruption caused a solid Kp8 storm

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Just now, tniickck said:

The only thing i know, is that in 1992 a filament eruption caused a solid Kp8 storm

Yeah, that's pretty solid, but we saw something similar this cycle too, the G4 around the March equinox that was caused by some stealthy events. However, the difference between G4 and G5 is pretty significant, and I don't think you really ever get G5s from events that don't have significant flaring associated with them. Your example is definitely to the point, but would you be able to find the same for any G5?

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1 minute ago, Philalethes said:

Yeah, that's pretty solid, but we saw something similar this cycle too, the G4 around the March equinox that was caused by some stealthy events. However, the difference between G4 and G5 is pretty significant, and I don't think you really ever get G5s from events that don't have significant flaring associated with them. Your example is definitely to the point, but would you be able to find the same for any G5?

yep. the march G4 was caused by a CH, and in March 2015 we had G4 from C9 flare. but, as seen, you cant get G5 storm without relatively fast solar wind speed. for example, on 6 November 2001 there was a G4 storm, despite the fact, that the Bz stayed below -50 for 2 hours (the lowest was -76), but it didnt get G5 just because of relatively low solar wind speed, if compared to, for example, 2003 Halloween storm

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8 minutes ago, tniickck said:

the march G4 was caused by a CH

I think there was more to it, at least I remember doing a writeup about some stealthy activity that occurred at the same time that I think contributed to it, but I guess we'll never know for sure unless someone goes back to do even more in-depth analysis of it, which I doubt anyone will bother to do at this point.

But yeah, that's right on the nail with the lack of wind speed; as I've mentioned a few times elsewhere the so-called flow pressure increases linearly with density, but quadratically with Solar wind speed (analogously to how kinetic energy does the same with mass and speed respectively in purely mechanical terms), so for the strongest activity you really do need that additional speed, which you pretty much only get from the strongest CMEs (even the HSSs from CHs are generally not fast enough, and come at the expense of density anyway).

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We are still learning about solar wind effects on the geomagnetic field and at ground level. The science is ongoing.

Nighttime Geomagnetic Response to Jumps of Solar Wind Dynamic Pressure: A Possible Cause of Québec Blackout in March 1989.

(I saw the aurora of this 1989 event down in Massachusetts, which is rare.)

Quote

By performing a global magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) simulation, we investigated magnetic disturbances on the ground at high-latitudes in response to jumps in the solar wind dynamic pressure, namely a sudden commencement (SC). After the arrival of the jump, a pair of field-aligned currents (FACs), related to the preliminary impulse, develop and travel in the anti-sunward direction. Soon after another pair related to the main impulse (MI) appears and travels in the anti-sunward direction. The horizontal ionospheric current associated with the MI remains strong when propagating to the nightside. On the dawnside the MI current flows sunward (anti-sunward) resulting in northward (southward) ground magnetic disturbance at higher (lower) latitude in the post-midnight sector. These features are similar to those observed in Canada in the high-latitude post-midnight sector when the Québec blackout took place on 13 March 1989. The nighttime geomagnetic perturbations associated with the MI occur regardless of the magnitude of the solar wind dynamic pressure and IMF orientation. The amplitude of the geoelectric field, which is closely related to the geomagnetically induced currents (GICs), reaches the maximum value just before and around the maximum of the southward magnetic disturbance. This is consistent with the moment at which the blackout occurred during the southward magnetic perturbation. We suggest that the blackout in Québec could be caused by the MI-associated Hall current passing over the Hydro-Québec power system on the nightside. The nighttime polar region is shown to be sensitive to hazardous GICs for large-amplitude jumps in the solar wind dynamic pressure.

 

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